Ghost 4
Essay by Robert Ivy, FAIA
Editor Architectural Record

For the fourth occasion, MacKay-Lyons' students have gathered on a spot drenched in the Canadian and North American history. Within a quarter-mile of his own house lie the bones, the remnants, foundations, stones and artifacts, of early Acadian and German settlement. Champlain's expeditionary force made its first landfall in the New World here at the mouth of the LaHave river in 1604. This site for the Ghost projects, was ultimately farmed by neighboring families and later purchased by the architect nearly four centuries later, and underlies each construction project.

The architect/teacher enriches and speeds the acquisition of knowledge, having spent an adult lifetime studying the deep background of the place. He transmits knowledge of village elders, including how to construct a way of life connected to the weather and land. In hearing Brian describe the land, he reaches back to geologic time, describing how the ice age sculpted the hillsides into a series of diagonal moraines and set the pattern for ultimate human settlement.

The land and weather shaped the first buildings, which inform the decisions about new buildings. Centered on his farm, "within walking distance", he has in his practice constructed simple forms drawn from the vernacular, yet clarified and transformed into modern thought. The "Ghost" project follows similar principals. Three inspirations underlie the program, and they animate most decisions. The first is the land and the landscape, which "slows you to the beginnings" of architecture, he says. The second is the actual community of inhabitants that surround his farm. And third, the program draws its roots from the material culture already present: how have people built before; what can be learned? Culture in all its forms, highbrow to low, shapes the construction projects.

With his own background as a student of the late Charles Moore, MacKay-Lyons admits that he is "part control-freak, part participatory designer." The students are organized honestly, with leaders and teachers and learners. "The program is not about self-discovery," which is a way to "terrorize people," he declares. Instead, he harks back to time-honored traditions, including the guild system, which provided a clear route for others to follow. At the same time, the student group derives strength from teamwork, "a pedagogical goal," avoiding solo performances to archieve productivity through group effort in a short time. The construction crew, made up of architects-to-be, takes on the tasks of measuring and sawing and carting and climbing and hammering under the direction of an experienced contractor, who doles out the tasks based on ability and experience.

Yet how to inspire them to action? In 2002, the genesis of the "Ghost" project lay in one question: "What would it feel like to stand between two barns that once stood there?" Sited on the historic peninsula at the mouth of the LaHave River, the architect chose to tell a story through architecture, employing early settlement patterns that might point to alternative ways of organizing the world. His method would be to materialize the space between the barns of two brothers-- "kissing cousins" he calls the demolished barns. That spot, as wide as a tractor road, became the power point between two farms, the abstract expression of human settlement, which MacKay-Lyons would transform into simple structures. As wind and weather shaped early structures, each "Ghost" structure is shaped by elementary constraints. In this case, a limited budget dictated wood members, a renewable material, simlpy joined. Where two barns had sat, the budget and materials suggested a single structure, which the architect extruded into a singular gateway to the sea, its members alternated and interlocked, stretched apart like the fingers of a hand.